We’ll always have Paris

Gliding between the tables of fashion models and millionaires, kissing hands and patting shoulders, the barman pauses at a photo above my chair. “I would say that was taken at Le Poulard at about 12 o’clock on the 25 of August 1944,” he muses above the chatter. “Robert Capa on the right has just taken the famous photos on the Normandy beaches, and Hemingway at the end of the table is about to liberate Paris with seven men. Or as he put it – liberate the cellars of the Ritz.”

He slips a glass of mist-coloured liquid onto the table in front of me. “You’re sitting in the chair where Hemingway’s son Jack used to sit in later years. Try this cocktail. It’s one of mine. We call it Serendipity.”

The cellars of the Ritz, and especially the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz, seem a good place to start an exploration of Paris in the 1920s. They seem even better after a sip of Colin Field’s exquisite mix of calvados, champagne and mint. No wonder he’s been voted the world’s best barman, twice. And a glance around his wood-walled bar, its panels crammed with prints of Hemingway hunting, shooting and writing, its tables crowded with beautiful people for Paris Fashion Week, is enough to seal the deal.

I’m here to find places where you can still catch an echo of that era, the glittering years between the wars when Paris shook up a cocktail of its own – from art, jazz, fashion and money – whose flavour is with us still. 

In this city Coco Chanel shaped modern fashion, Scott Fitzgerald trumpeted the jazz age in his fiction, Picasso exploded painting into Cubism and Dali lulled it into dreams. “Paris,” said the resident American writer Gertrude Stein, “was the twentieth century. It was the place to be.”

Right now, the Ritz seems to be the place to be, as the clock touches 2 am and I drift towards my bedroom. The corridors are impossibly grand, the height of six humans, drenched in blue carpets and festooned with chandeliers. Somewhere upstairs I find the room, its cream walls scrolled rococo-style, its bathroom a fantasy of marble and gold taps. There’s an ice-bucket on the mantelpiece chilling pink champagne, a vase of orchids, and a folder of hotel stationery on which they’ve printed my name. Beside the bed, gold buttons allow you to summon a waiter, housemaid or valet.

But I’m searching for something else, so next day I leave the glamour of the Right Bank and walk onto the Left. Here, near the spires of Notre Dame, is the city’s other shrine to the Twenties. A rackety bookshop, its low-beamed ceilings lit by dusty candelabras, its maze of rooms packed with red-leather tomes beside the bright bestsellers of today. Its terrace is scattered with benches and bookstands, where tourists and a tramp are browsing. A poster proclaims: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

This is Shakespeare & Company. For almost seven decades it has welcomed strangers, as customers or as guests. Hidden among its bookstacks, cunningly disguised as sofas, are pull-out beds where penniless writers can stay for free, in return for help in the shop. Over 50,000 hopefuls have stayed at this ‘Tumbleweed Hotel’. As I will tonight.

The shop’s name and ideals are reincarnations of a famous bookshop of the Twenties, run by a free-spirited young American, Sylvia Beach. That version of Shakespeare & Company became an informal club for the experimental and usually impoverished writers of the time, with Hemingway as its favourite friend and James Joyce as its patriarch. Beach bravely published Joyce’s radical novel Ulysses in 1922, defying public scandal. It made her reputation.

Today’s bookshop is run by Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was named after the first Sylvia. She can often be seen in the antiquarian section, blond hair curling over a pile of bills, coping with chaos.

I ask her how it feels to continue the work of her namesake. “It’s a dream to work here,” she explains, “surrounded by a circus of books and eccentric people constantly in movement. I think Paris still holds a very literary weight for aspiring writers. The literary history is rich here, the river is lined with booksellers, the city is made for walking, the cafés are for long hours of thinking and taking notes. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I still envision Paris in that way.”

Among the books on the first floor is my bed for the night. At 11 pm the shutters go up on the shop, the Tumbleweeds conjure their bags from hidden cupboards, and conversations begin. I talk late into the night with Alex, a slow-talking American whose literary ambitions are “fading”. My bed has a crumpled red duvet and I fall asleep beneath hardbacks with names like Memoir of Scott Fitzgerald, Being Geniuses Together and Gertrude Stein Remembered.

Next morning I awake to the bells of Notre Dame. I slip out to find the original Shakespeare & Company. Threading my way through the tall lanes of the Latin Quarter, I pass Picasso’s studio in Rue des Grands Augustines, a grand courtyard house where he painted Guernica in 1937 as the golden years ended in war. Some have called it the most important painting of the twentieth century.

Finally I find Rue de l’Odeon, a grand old street where the numbers are confusing. I blunder into a shop that might be the original Shakespeare. It’s a bookshop still, but the silver-haired owner is not amused. Beach’s shop was next door, he barks in classic Parisian style, rattling a telephone into life, don’t I have decent eyes?

Next door is a fashion store, with no trace of the frontage I know so well from photos. I give up and catch a Metro to the Closerie des Lilas, a lovely old café frequented by writers forever. Here we are closer to how it was. By the door an old man is shucking oysters. I get a flash of Hemingway’s famous description of writing a story in this very café as a struggling unknown – and celebrating its completion with a dozen Portugaises. 

Inside the Closerie there’s a grand restaurant to the right, all starched tablecloths, where Jean-Christophe the manager points out a famous lady novelist at lunch. But to the left is the old bar as it was: a dim-lit Art Deco room, with wooden tables where the names of past customers are recorded on tiny brass nameplates. I sit at the place of Edvard Munch. Nearby is Jean-Paul Sartre. Then Man Ray, August Strindberg and, curiously, Vladimir Lenin. Not shown is the original bad-boy poet, Charles Baudelaire, who drank here in the 1860s. On the counter, next to the ice bucket, is a plaque that simply says ‘Hemingway’. 

Surfacing after an ice-cold demi, I head for the Lutetia, the city’s finest Art Deco hotel. This is where Picasso spent his honeymoon after marrying a beautiful dancer from the Ballets Russes in 1918. The façade is a sinuous ripple of masonry, curving like a Gaudi. The interior is period perfection. The bar is lit by two huge bronze statues of women clutching bulbs of light. The brasserie is a blaze of chrome and mirrors, where customers in curving banquettes eat shellfish on ice. There are fashionistas in the bar, and jazz till 1 am, and a hedonistic spa. Of all the places I’ve seen so far, this one is the time machine.

Nearby is the Rue de Fleurus, where from the 1910s the almost unreadable writer Gertrude Stein held salons on a Saturday. And it is Stein who has drawn me to Paris. On her walls she displayed an astonishing collection of Modernist paintings, by daring unknowns like Picasso and Matisse, who she was the first to buy. She was a patron to young writers too. Visitors came to view the avant-garde art and talk to the experimental author – who believed that her style had largely created Joyce, Proust and Hemingway. 

After her death, the fabulous collection was dispersed. But this week it has been reassembled for an exhibition at the Grand Palais. It’s a once-only opportunity to step into that time.

Her studio is in a courtyard barred by glass doors. I lurk. Someone comes out. I flit in. Down a path is a square of bushes, and then on the right the famous apartment. Nothing special, a flat front painted cream. Lights turned out. But this is where they walked, all those pioneers.

To meet a living pioneer, I travel to the rougher quarter of Menilmontant. Here lives a 94-year-old painter who just caught the inter-war years. Alfred Rozelaar Green came here in 1938 as an art student from London, and stayed for most of his life. 

He welcomes me into the little house with a firm handshake and a glint in the eyes. “We’re holding an open studio,” he explains, gesturing at the vibrant canvases lining his studio. “I can’t lift my right hand to paint any more, but I’ve taught myself to draw with the left. Glass of rose?”

We sit in a garden beneath a vine with his wife Betty, eating omelettes and strawberries. They laugh at old memories. They tell me how they met, when Alfred staged a play at the avant-garde Anglo-French Art Centre in London, for which Betty was costumier. It was an experimental piece called Yes Is For A Very Young Man – written by Gertrude Stein. But this was 1948, just after her death, and they never met her.

But Alfred recalls the pre-war artist’s life: days spent sketching in studios from 9 am till 10 pm, nights at the Bal Negre dance hall, where Afro-Cuban jazz was the rage. From 6 pm the place to meet was the Dome café, two streets from his digs, a favoured haunt of Bohemians to this day. And one night he took home from there the woman who became his first wife: Nita, who had once been a model for Matisse.

They remember, too, hanging out with Picasso on the beaches of the Riviera after the war was over. “So playful he was,” smiles Betty, “always fooling about. In those days you could go into a café and see someone famous and just talk to them. Not like England!”

And they remember me, as a little boy, born in Paris in the cold winter of 1963, when my parents had run away from London to be artists together. My parents used to speak of meeting Picasso and Dali and Sartre, and an aged concierge who once was Rodin’s model. But they had not known the older Paris. And I have not visited Betty and Alfred for 30 years. We are all travelling in time.

Finally I say goodbye and head off to the Stein show. It is superb. There is a wall of early Matisses in their wild colourings. There are shimmering Cezannes, and precise Cubist works by Picasso and Juan Gris. I realise where Art Deco got its lines from. 

There is Picasso’s masterly portrait of Stein herself, a grumpy women in brown. She complained that it did not look like her, and he warned her that in the future it would. 

And then there is Picasso’s self portrait in his twenties. Not the bullish conqueror with the burning eyes of later years, but an awkward, unsure, younger man – a penniless arrival in Paris, wondering how to make his mark. I look into his eyes and see fear.

And I realise that perhaps this is what Paris gave them all, and why it happened here. This raffish city offered a place of sanctuary and the promise of a dream. 

That dream of Paris was captured best by Hemingway. His break-through novel in 1926 was The Sun Also Rises, a hymn to the Bohemian life in Paris. And his final book was A Moveable Feast, his attempt to recapture that time – “the early days when we were very poor and very happy”. His life and that time are encapsulated between those two magnificent books. They’re as close as you’ll ever get to being there.

He started writing A Moveable Feast in 1957, after being given two old suitcases full of notes from the period. They had been stored all those years, in the cellars at the Ritz.